IT WAS a lovely Sunday summer afternoon, with dappled sunlight and soft breezes. But on the screened porch of a suburban Washington home, where some 20 women had gathered, it was all, in Ben Jonson's words, "heartache and pang."
I was attending, by invitation, a meeting of CUB, Concerned United Birthparents, an organization made up mostly women who have given up their babies for adoption and have regretted it every day since. I had written about adoption as an alternative to abortion and received critical, even bitter letters from women who said that once again they had been diminished, if not erased.
CUB helps these women search for their relinguished children. It is an arduous, sometimes expensive process, and it can end in rejection by the found children. Some people think CUB is neurotic and self-flagellating, that it encourages the opening of old wounds, fosters wallowing in "irretrievable disaster," makes women dramatize what they would better forget.
Certainly none of that was true of Gladys, the woman who sat next to me. It was her first meeting. Unlike the fashionably frizzy, casually dressed women around her, Gladys's hair and suit were formal. She was from the South, she said. She didn't know whether to search for her child or not. She told her story.
"It happened 28 years ago. I'm a grandmother now, and I still ache. I was 18 years old, I had no job, no training. I came from a house that was really not much better than a shack, no running water, and I wanted something better for my child."
Gladys's grief was laced with remorse. She had never told her mother. She thinks now she should have told her, that her mother would have taken her and the baby in and given the child what Gladys knows is "most important" -- love.
Her voice broke and she began to cry, and the whole sun porch with her. Laura Lewis, the regional coordinator, whipped around a box of tissues.
Another woman had a picture of a daughter who exactly resembles her. She told of her fear, at age 23, of being kicked out of the Foreign Service. She turned to her brother, a priest, who counseled her to give up the child, to think of it "as an experience you are going through."
"They tell you that you will put it all behind you and get on with your life. But it gnaws at you constantly. They do not prepare you for the pain. You are made to feel responsible to make some childless couple happy."
A woman told of an anguished meeting with her son. He kept taking her back to the moment she had relinquished him (the verb is less lacerating than "surrender" and infinitely preferable to "abandon"). He was 27 when they met, and he was in therapy. He wanted to know what he had done wrong.
The other side of the coin came from a a slender, diffident, dark-haired young woman who was wondering if she should search for her mother. She is happy with her adoptive parents -- "they are wonderful" -- but she feels a void, something missing, and she feels her mother was "unselfish to give me up."
One woman said, "I just wanted to find my son so I can tell him I loved him then and I love him now. I feel I owe him that." For two hours it went like that, in voices that broke with yearning and anguish, a litany of "if onlys": birth fathers who walked away, parents who thought only of the "disgrace" of unwed motherhood, maternity homes where services were held for the "forgiveness of sinners," social workers who assured them their babies were going to a better life -- which was not always true. Adoptive parents reflect our society; they have their shares of divorces, alcohol, Valium. The case of Lisa Steinberg, the New York child murdered by her adoptive father, is the Chernobyl of birth mothers.
Times have changed. Single motherhood is no longer a stigma. But it's still hard for a teenage girl with a baby to make it on her own. I was wishing New York's Cardinal John O'Connor could be there. He threatens hell to Catholics tolerating abortion, when obviously he should be offering help to pregnant women who would like to keep their babies.
Marilyn was the woman who made the most compelling case for CUB's argument for access to adoption records. The practice in 47 states is to substitute the original birth certificate with one giving the adoptive parents' names.
Marilyn gave up her son in 1961 in Buffalo. In 1980, she started to search. Two years ago, she found out that he died at 14 months before he could be adopted. He was with a baby-sitter and was victim to a freak accident.
"I could have had my son with me today," she mourned.
CUB mothers are marching from New York and will rally with local supporters opposite the Senate office buildings on Tuesday. They are asking that adoption records be unsealed. They are asking to be accepted the way two sets of parents are accepted in a divorce situation. There are, plainly, no painless answers.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.